Swiss guards in traditional armor attend the Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi blessing

Christmas in Rome

Because of Rome’s central place in Christianity, it is an extremely popular destination during the yuletide season, which extends through the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, 2013.

Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica is usually overwhelmingly crowded, so one alternative is to go to the Piazza San Pietro, directly in front of the basilica, for the Pope’s blessing at noon on Christmas Day. The Vatican’s crèche is nearby at the obelisk.

One of the oldest Nativity sets in the world is in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, as is a relic of what is said to be the manger where Jesus was born. The churches in the Piazza del Popolo are also adorned for the season. In the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Aracoeli, near the Piazza Venezia, children flock to a small pulpit to speak to Santo Bambino Gesù, a statue of the baby Jesus.

One of the most popular holiday markets is in the Piazza Navona. Stores throughout Rome and Vatican City abound in sweets, candied fruits and chestnuts. Christmas is also the season for caccia, which literally means hunt but refers to the wild game often served in fall and winter — pheasant, boar and deer. Near the Vatican, a personal favorite, Dal Toscano, is renowned for its bistecca alla fiorentina, a steak slathered with olive oil and salt and then seared in a wood-fired oven.

— S.G.F.

The next morning, we set out for Piazza Navona but found ourselves even more entranced by the nearby Pantheon. As much as any building in Rome, the Pantheon embodies the overlapping waves of culture, religion and epoch: built by the emperor Hadrian early in the second century A.D., sanctified as a Catholic church in 609 and made the burial place for the kings Umberto I and Victor Emmanuel II less than 150 years ago.

It was abundantly evident why any regime would want to appropriate the Pantheon. To this day, it has the largest unenforced concrete dome of any structure in the world, which features a central oculus that opens to the sky. To see a shaft of sunlight pouring through the opening to the circular floor 143 feet below is to feel the presence of divinity or nature, something both ethereal and humbling, as captured by the genius of Roman architecture and construction. No matter one’s beliefs, the Pantheon is a place of homage.

Holiday decorations in St. Peter's Square under the Egyptian obelisk
In our daily balancing of the grandiose and the intimate, Chana and I had our post-Pantheon lunch at L’Orso 80, on a quiet street just a few blocks from the bustling Piazza Navona. We feasted on three specialties — a liter of house white wine, a platter of grilled fish and the most delectable antipasti we had ever tasted. With servings of roasted eggplant, marinated mushrooms, meatballs, white beans in tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, peppers and more, the antipasti easily could have made an entire meal. Then again, excess does seem to be a Roman virtue, as well as the motivation to do some more walking.